ABC Radio Interviews the Director of GunPolicy.Org: ‘The Pacific is Not Immune from Gun Violence’

8 October 2018   ‘Pacific Mornings’ ABC Radio Australia

[Gun safety] has been in focus in the Pacific region, and Samoa is in the middle of its third gun amnesty in three years. Now, more Pacific Island nations are considering joining up to an Arms Trade Treaty in order to prevent weapon trafficking in the region. The next guest, Philip Alpers, has represented Australia at the United Nations and he is the founding director of GunPolicy.org with the Sydney School of Public Health, which compares armed violence across the world. He joins me now.

Listen to the interview at the Pacific Small Arms Action Group website here

Seini Taumoepeau: So, Philip, you just returned from Fiji, where you were discussing the Arms Trade Treaty, so can you give me an overview of that Treaty?

Philip Alpers: The Arms Trade Treaty is as it suggests a trade treaty. It governs the movement of arms from one country to another. This is at a governmental level, and nearly 100 countries have signed up to it now. It’s a very important treaty because it’s going to provide a shield, a global net against illegal arms trafficking. Samoa was the first to join from the Pacific islands and it’s really the pathfinder in the region, so we were talking to Samoa, and Fiji is very close. I think they are thinking how they can join the Arms Trade Treaty. Like most treaties, it’s not very sexy but it’s going to have a long-term impact and very deeply affect the peaceful nature of our societies in the Pacific — if enough Pacific nations adopt it.

Seini Taumoepeau: And, which other Pacific countries have signed up or are in the process of signing up?

Philip Alpers: Palau, Tuvalu, Kiribati, [Nauru, Vanuatu], Australia, New Zealand… some countries have a lack of capacity. These treaties impose a burden on countries and there are so many treaties to comply with, but luckily the United Nations and others have set up a pot of trust money… for countries like Pacific islands. So we are able to go into the Pacific islands and say ‘Well, we’ve already got the funding, the donor nations from the United Nations and others have already put up the money, so we can help you install this Treaty, and install the software and so on that is needed for it, and it’s free’. So, we hope that Pacific Island countries will leap at this opportunity. We realise it’s not a high priority, but we have ways of persuading people that it may very soon be a high priority.

Seini Taumoepeau: And so, what would be some of the benefits for a Pacific Island nation signing up?

Philip Alpers: Well… I think that the biggest benefit is prevention. Think how lucky we are [in the Pacific].

Seini Taumoepeau: yes

Philip Alpers: the Pacific has developed a regional consensus on disarmament. We don’t have armed groups, or much violence and it’s one of the most peaceful in the world. We have very little armed violence – largely because there aren’t many illicit arms in our communities – and now we are almost the only big slice of the globe which has the luxury of prevention. We have a unique opportunity to prevent the flow of loose guns into our islands and to keep the Pacific pacific. But that takes foresight, it takes awareness and prevention really is the key.

We mustn’t pretend that we are immune, because as the rest of the world tightens the net to prevent arms trafficking, the criminals and the arms brokers are absolutely certain to target the countries with the biggest legal loopholes – and many of those countries are in the southern Pacific. That is what the Arms Trade Treaty is all about in our region.

Seini Taumoepeau: What are some of the reason why Pacific island nations will not sign up to this Treaty? Did you mention that it might be a burden?

Philip Alpers: Yes, a burden on them. Even more reporting to do, and that’s why we’re going around showing them a reporting tool which makes it all a lot easier. Also, some countries have fears for sovereignty. They fear that if they sign up to an international treaty, that might make it harder for them to get the arms they want, the firearms and the other armaments that they feel their country needs. In fact, it’s likely to be the opposite. It’s likely that this would make it easier for respectable countries (and in that I include of course almost all the Pacific) to bring in more arms when they need them.

This is not in any way an attempt to disarm sovereign states, it’s a trade treaty. The basic tenet of the Arms Trade Treaty is that if you are a country which exports arms, then you must go through a series of checks and balances. You must check that the arms that you are going to export to country X are not going to be used in human rights violations, in using rape as a tool of war, as happens in many undeveloped countries. For instance, gender-based violence is a large part of the root of this treaty. It’s very important to cut down on gender-based violence. If a country is  trying to export to a country that has human rights violations or gender-based violence, etc., then they have to show that those arms are not going to misused and the country to which they are going has to make sure that they are not being misused — and also make sure very importantly that they are not just going to be shipped over another border, into another country that is not part of the Arms Trade Treaty.

The Arms Trade Treaty is about regulating the illicit trade in firearms. It’s not a tool about sporting shooters or farmers or people who already have guns in domestic situations. Those are essential for agriculture and many other purposes around the Pacific. So, this doesn’t affect legally owned civilian arms, but what it does affect is unlawful arms. The illicit trafficking in arms.

Seini Taumoepeau: You have been working with gun safety and control for many years, from your experience, do you have any stories of weapons trafficking that speak to the importance of the Arms Trade Treaty?

Philip Alpers: Certainly. There are lots of people in the Pacific who think ‘Oh, that would never happen here… We will never have that sort of problem here’ and yet you look at… especially with brokering… you probably heard or maybe saw the Nicholas Cage movie called ‘Lord of War’. He characterised the famous arms broker called Viktor Bout, and he moved arms mainly around Africa, usually without even going near the arms. He bought them, sold them and sent them from one country to another.

Everybody thought ‘Oh, that is not a Pacific problem,, and then a few years ago, a tiny shell company run out of an accountancy office in Vanuatu and another tiny shell company with no assets apart from this one transaction in New Zealand, both were implicated in a shipment of 38 tones of illicit arms. They bought an aircraft from North Korea to Thailand and then on to Iran. Luckily, those 38 tones were intercepted in Thailand and the arms were confiscated, but what astonished everybody was that two ‘peaceful nations’ in the Pacific had allowed these brokers to operate in their territory without even realising that they didn’t have the laws to govern these things.

These brokering laws are really important in the Pacific to prevent that kind of situation — as in the movie ‘Lord of War.’ ‘The Merchant of Death’ was another name they gave him. We don’t want too many of those in the Pacific.

Seini Taumoepeau: So, the vast majority of police in the Pacific Islands, they don’t carry guns, but might we see change here?

Philip Alpers: Yes, you are right! The great majority of police in the Pacific police their communities without carrying guns, and we are very proud of that. When we travel to places like Los Angeles and see people carrying submachine guns it’s quite a shock. But gradually I think the times are changing. Although only 3% of police routinely carry a gun on any one shift in New Zealand, more and more of their patrol cars have got a gun locked away in the boot. That is a trend. I think we are going to see more and more suggestions that guns should be carried by the police, but the police themselves realise… they are very often very opposed to this. The moment they (police) start packing guns, that kicks off the whole arms race. The criminals will feel that they have to carry guns, so we have to be very careful about spreading that sort of militarisation of the police like it’s happening in the United States. We must make sure that that doesn’t happen here.

Seini Taumoepeau: You mentioned earlier that Samoa was the first of Pacific nations to sign this treaty. So, Samoa is doing its third weapons amnesty in three years. What does it say about the gun situation in Samoa?

Philip Alpers: It says luckily that is not a big problem. The firearms that are coming in so far have been very welcome, but they are nothing surprising. We haven’t got AK 47s flooding into the country.

There will be some interesting questions about how some of these guns that have been handed in in the amnesty actually got into the country because nobody is quite sure. This allows some tracing to be done. This allows us to know how the guns are getting into the country and what loopholes are in various countries. But by and large, the more firearms that are registered – on the books and lawfully held by lawful licensed gun owners – the easier it is for the community to feel secure. It’s the loose guns that are the cause of the problem.

Seini Taumoepeau: Samoa has already signed up to the Arms Trade Treaty as mentioned. What is the future of security in gun violence for the other countries who are thinking about signing the Treaty?

Philip Alpers: We hope it’s a bright one! As I say, the Pacific has this consensus for disarmament. We are all basically friends, we collaborate with each other, we tighten the net every month on transnational crime. We realise that wherever there are illicit guns, we have to deal with this realistically.

This region is not immune from gun violence. We have this huge luxury. We can actually do preventive things before they become a big problem. The Arms Trade Treaty is an important part of that and I think that the Pacific is well on the way to ensuring that most of its countries sign up and comply with the Arms Trade Treaty, since it’s not difficult to comply, and since we are part of the international net to curb the trafficking of illicit firearms.

‘Pacific Mornings,’ ABC Radio Australia

Presenter: Seini Taumoepeau

Interviewee: Philip Alpers, director of GunPolicy.org

The University of Sydney School of Public Health

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